BET starts weekly news program

By David Bauder

The show will address politics and other topics of interest to the black community.

NEW YORK — BET starts a weekly news program today described as a cross between Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher with a black perspective.

Called “The Truth with Jeff Johnson” and airing at 11 p.m. on Fridays, the program stars a BET personality who has also been an activist for the NAACP and People for the American Way. Its debut is timed for the Democratic National Convention.

BET, the most-watched network aimed at blacks, will also air Barack Obama’s speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination Aug. 28 live, just like its competitor TV One. Neither network, however, is airing John McCain’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention the next week.

Besides election coverage and commentary on the week’s news, Johnson said he wanted “The Truth” to address topics like the use of vouchers for private schools and health issues particularly relevant to African Americans.

BET has been criticized frequently in the black community for cutting back on news-oriented shows. But Johnson said much of the criticism comes from people who don’t watch BET, and don’t see how news has been incorporated into existing shows. BET was one of the few networks to cover Darfur in depth, he said.

“I have been encouraged by the direction we’ve been going in,” he said.

On the four nights of the Democratic convention, BET will run news specials focusing on how ex-convicts can’t vote, on the top 10 issues facing black Americans, on the key moments leading up to Obama’s nomination and on whether Obama could be considered a manifestation of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Though TV One is carrying live convention coverage for four nights and an “afterparty” of social commentary, BET’s only live coverage will be of Obama’s speech. BET’s reporters will deliver convention stories inserted into other programs, Johnson said.

The networks’ focus on Obama is understandable given polls showing overwhelming support for the Democrat among black Americans. (A poll taken in June for The Associated Press and Yahoo News found blacks favoring Obama by a margin of 90 percent to 3 percent, with 6 percent unsure.) But is it necessarily fair?

Paul Porter, a former BET program director and news anchor who now runs the Web site, said it isn’t fair. He also believes the networks’ coverage decisions are being made for financial reasons, not journalistic ones.

“I’m happy they’re doing it, but I know that it will be gone after November,” Porter said. “You’ll never see politics or information on any of these networks.”

That’s pretty much the case with TV One. Johnathan Rodgers, the network’s president, said he tried doing some news programming when he was an executive at Discovery and the audience preferred to get their information elsewhere. He said he suspects the same is true at TV One, that audiences consider it an entertainment network. TV One is not covering the Republican convention at all.

Both Rodgers and Johnson said they’re covering Obama’s speech live not necessarily because it’s a news event, but because it’s an historic moment for blacks.

“If we had no news division, it would be important to show that speech,” Johnson said. “There’s no telling when it will happen again. It certainly hasn’t happened before.”

Even though there are no specific programs scheduled about it, BET will send reporters to the Republican convention, Johnson said. He said “it’s important for our viewers to be able to see both sides.”

To that end, Johnson said he’s still hoping to secure an interview with McCain for BET; Obama and Hillary Clinton both spoke to the network early in the Democratic campaign.

He said he’s betting on McCain’s coming through.

“He’s been pretty courageous about going into places where he wouldn’t expect to have a lot of support,” he said.

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